The kid followed me across the pool to the shallow end. As I got out of the water to go back to the deeper end for more drills, he shouted, “Girl, that was the best worst belly flop in the world!” I walked fast, but he kept up with me, swimming fast and chortling “That must really hurt!”
He was right. It did hurt. A lot.
I got ready for the next dive. The most recent of fifteen belly flops flamed stinging scarlet over my arms and legs. I didn’t think about how my belly felt. That was for later.
The coach told me that I could take a break. I shook my head no, a stubborn kid who was going to master this if it were the last thing that she ever did.
It was yet another spectacular, flaming, painful belly flop.
The kid was waiting, happily bobbing in the shallow end. “How stupid are you?” I swam past him, got out of the pool to walk back to the deep end. Paddling along, he called, “What’s wrong with you?”
The rest of the swim team sat on the grass, drinking purple juice and eating cookies. The coach looked incredulous and a little impressed when I said that I wanted to keep going. He offered new pointers, helped me to set up differently, urged me to use a focal point further out than what I had been doing.
This time, I made a perfect racing dive.
It didn’t hurt. I was much further across the pool than I had ever been. What’s more, I was able to go right into the strong, sure strokes that would make me first one at the finish line. Kid judge/commentator wasn’t there, missing my huge grin in his face, “That’s a racing dive. Can you do one?”
Growing as a writer is like learning to fly far out over the water so that you can swim fast to the finish line. There will be many embarassing, painful belly flops before you manage to hit the water just right — but once you know how, you’ve got it forever.
Know Why You Write
Know why you write, what you want, and what matters. For example, I imagine few writers write to increase their metrics. Metrics are useful tools to measure how your work is received, can help you sell your stories, diagnose where you want to improve, but they are not the story and they are not why you write.
For me and swimming, I loved the water. I loved slicing through it with sure, steady, powerful strokes. Swimming on the swim team meant that I got extra time in the water, guidance on how to improve, and encouragement to do my best. Eight a.m. practice every day was not comfortable, never easy, but I got to swim and that mattered more than the terrible first plunge into freezing water.
For the poet, this might mean spending frustrating hours capturing the rhythm that expresses their own soul dance. For a novelist, it might mean struggling to weave plot with subplots and managing unruly characters and finding their way to a story that makes their own heart sing. It could mean blogging your sorrow, your best advice, and connecting with others.
Swim with the Best
I quit the swim team when my pudgy kid self aged into the class of tall, strong, girl-women of 17 with years of experience swimming in competition. After getting used to winning, it was unbearable to once again be the last one out of the water. When I later met others who kept on going despite their own tough transitions, I grieved to realize that I had given up too soon.
Had I stuck with it, I would have learned how to swim better, move through the water faster than I ever had done. I would encourage that younger me to take the more difficult road if it’s the one that keeps you in your joy, gets you where you want to be. I would set that kid down and suggest that she keep her love for swimming top of mind and keep on coming in last until she learned how to succeed.
Connect with the best writers that you possibly can. Writers are an exceptionally generous, accessible community that you can find everywhere. At a reading, speak with the writer — and blabber out your admiration because writing can be a lonely, vulnerable, crazy-making pursuit. Attend workshops, conferences, and other writer gatherings — to be with your tribe, even if all you do is listen, scrawl notes, and drink too much coffee while avoiding eye contact. Be with your people, enjoy the company of others who think differently, see the world differently from everyone else.
Learn from Your Losses
Swim with the best, the brightest and the most accomplished writers that you can. Pitch your story in person, watch eyes glaze, and flame out badly. Blog your heart out and either get no response or entice a troll into mortal combat. Gather the rejections, the “must pass with reluctance,” and know that this is the way of this world.
Read the best work that you can find, in your genre and across other genres — and read everything that challenges your point of view, preferred form (essay versus fantasy graphic novel), works from the esteemed to the unknown.
If you are clear about why you are writing and what you want to accomplish, failures and losses are nothing but steps on the way to your shining goal. There may be silences and other times when rejections keep piling on, but no matter. Keep your eyes on that goal and keep going, but don’t be stupid. Maybe there is change needed, which leads to the next point.
Find Your Coach and Listen
Our swim team coach loved the water, had competed himself, and lived the lessons he drilled into us. There are plenty of writers just like that coach, either in your life right now, in the wider community, or elsewhere in the world. Listen to them.
These writers can elevate your art far beyond anything you can accomplish on your own. Rely upon them, accept their gifts and knowledge and ask for help. It’s wonderful to connect with someone on the same path, further along or off to the side, even if only for a cup of coffee and a point in the right direction.
A coach may be one person, a writing group, a critique partner, or a broader circle of supportive individuals who want you to succeed in developing your own unique story, your own individual art. Keep looking until you find that coach and cherish them — knowing that as you develop, you may need to find new coaches for your new challenges.
Be a Coach Yourself
At the end of the season, our swim club held an open swimming competition. Grouped by age, we all swam for the honor, the glory, and a coupon for the snack bar.
A knobby-kneed, scrawny girl stood next to me for our heat. Swim team experienced, I easily won my coupon, but was impressed by how hard that skinny girl thrashed to win. After the race, the girl congratulated me. We shared a pack of cookies and that’s how I met a best friend and the first person I ever helped learn how to do anything. We started with the racing dive.
Writers can advance by sharing what they know with other writers: resources, hard-won expertise, best coffee shop or bookstore to get some writing done. As you give, you grow and develop as well, paying forward the gifts from other writers to yourself.
“Fall seven times, rise eight times, life begins now.”
I did countless belly flops on the way to learning the racing dive, came in last so regularly that it stunned everyone when I didn’t. Weird Business suggests that this quote is not about resilience so much as it is about transformation. I was transformed from a kid who wanted to swim better to one who did swim better by working harder, longer, and tougher than I ever had to learn how to do a racing dive.
In writing, stay clear about why you write what you do and keep your eye on your personal goal. Create the work that only you can create. Be stubborn and be diligent about learning your craft. Progress, grow, share what you create, knowing that you live most fully by doing that hardest thing. Keep moving your goals — after you’ve celebrated your accomplishment, your learning, and your wins — go on to the next hardest thing.
Ultimately, your belly flops will become magnificent, full-on racing dives that carry you far across the pool.
“…ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
Recently, my belly flops have been spectacular. Friends and colleagues have helped by sharing their belly flop to racing dive stories, guiding me to new expertise. One day, as I struggled to catch my breath and ignore scarlet arms and legs, I helped a writer with an issue that I had already gotten past in my own work. Over coffee, we laughed that while it doesn’t get any less scary or daunting, it does get better. After all, we’ve gone from belly flop to racing dive before.
Raimey Gallant has gathered a terrific tribe of writers for a monthly Author Toolbox BlogHop. Her encouragement and support have brought so many of us to blogging — yet another opportunity to master a racing dive — and I am among the grateful, happy writers participating on the third Wednesday of every month.
This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop with so many great blogs about writing to keep hopping through. Click here to join or to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition of the hop.